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50 Greatest Stories

Max Goldblatt’s Last Hurrah

We may never again vote against a more interesting mayoral candidate, but the last days of his campaign reveal the man behind the man who would have been mayor.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in a different era. It may contain words or themes that today we find objectionable. We nonetheless have preserved the story in our archive, without editing, to offer a clear look at this magazine’s contribution to the historical record.


Max always knew it would be like this. On inauguration day, he emerged from a fancy car, his heels echoing like rifle shots as he approached the stage. His wife, Rosa, was beside him, cute as a fishing fly, and all the big men of the city—those nattily dressed real estate types who had made fun of him all these years—were standing behind him, looking like corpses, while Max gave them his Tom Sawyer smile and rubbed his hands.

It was beautiful. He accepted Chuck Anderson’s resignation later that week and made the City Council members sit through a two-hour presentation on the wonders of the monorail. Then he made all the members of DART, the Dallas area’s mass transit board, sign a pledge promising to support the monorail or resign. And while he was at it, he got a few assistant city managers, and a department head or two, to resign as well—all to cut out waste.

Now everyone was paying attention. Max got rid of the city’s potholes through private donations. He sold the city’s sludge to farm operators. He took the excess methane gas the city burns off and used it to generate electricity. The solid wastes collected by the sanitation department had become fuel for huge furnaces.

Illustration by Lesley Busby

Dallas was blooming: The vacant office buildings were filled with tenants, the hungry were fed, the neighborhoods were safe. Beautiful, beautiful. “By God,” Max said in one of his speeches, “how does it feel to be happy again?”

In the spring of 1985, Max had set off on his oddball quest to make people happy. He was going to become mayor. A valiant, often hilarious endeavor by a 73-year-old hardware store owner who looked like a lost cousin of the Marx Brothers, yet who tried to forge his own identity in the unlikeliest place: the gray, blurry backdrop of Dallas city government. Only in the race for mayor could he work out this inner, strangely quixotic vision. And he almost pulled it off. This is the story of his last hurrah.

In the late February afternoon, as the sunlight lingered like the memories of younger days, Max Goldblatt sat beside one of the plastic plants that decorated his campaign offices and watched his staff swing into action.

His campaign manager, Terry Elkins, a brassy woman who wears rings on five fingers and speaks in conspiratorial tones, was on the phone, chatting to a friend about the number of City Hall bureaucrats who could not be trusted. The two women who made up the entire phone bank that day were taking a coffee break, and Goldblatt’s bright, young researcher, Ken Orr, was staring idly out the window.

Three-term City Councilman Goldblatt looked about, sighed happily, and then explained in his peculiar voice—one that sounds like the escape of gas from a pipe and a sheep calling to its young—why he had a chance to be mayor. “Do you know what I’ve noticed?” he said. “Not a single person comes up to me on the streets and calls me a little bastard.”

Max Goldblatt, the most talked about local politician for the last decade, a man who, if he did not change the Dallas political landscape at least added a couple of thorn bushes, retains an unyielding belief that every man can be a hero. His determined, wayward path has made him a romantic figure, a fanciful man in a rumpled suit and slightly tilted glasses who, like a medieval bard switching roles between jester and wise sage, dances a little jig to to his own tune without any sense of shame.

But now he wanted to be king. In spite of the deliberate, lordly way that Dallas elects its mayors, Max was making a run. It was almost inconceivable that he could do it. Long ago, Max seemingly occurred like a slip of the tongue. Suddenly, without anyone’s really knowing why, he was in the midst of us, as if he had emerged from our subconscious. He made himself a part of our political vocabulary. From his little perch behind the City Council desk, he damned us and joked with us and delighted us with his proposals that seemed to come from the back pages of Popular Mechanics. He flourished in the restricted environment of Dallas politics like those types of plants that do best in a narrow pot of unchanged soil.

The key point, of course, is that for most people Dallas city government is amorphous—there is only the foggiest sense of who controls what, or why the City Council is less important than the city manager’s office. After watching city officials emotionally declare Dallas to be an “international city,” then get in protracted arguments over the renaming of freeways, the perception is that our leaders are not only powerless—they’re often silly.

One doesn’t sense any overriding philosophy, only the image of a man who saw himself as a figure of hope against a tide of lunacy.

Which sets the stage for a Max Goldblatt, a man who operates more out of instinct than anything else. Max didn’t have a clue how to campaign for mayor. When he filed in February, one of four candidates but obviously the strongest challenger, he paid his filing fee with dollar bills that had George Washington’s face covered with a picture of his own: “Maxi Bucks.” Another strategy was to pass out cards with glue on the back that could stick to a shirt like a nametag. The cards read: “Viva Max.”

His campaign headquarters looked like a Sunday School relief drive for the hungry. There were loaves of bread and canned food on the back shelf. As the race began, campaign manager Elkins, when asked if she had any kind of plan, any written strategy, blew a thin trail of smoke from her cigarette and said in her Mae West voice, “Honey, we haven’t even bought a notebook yet.” Elkins never even saw the checks people were sending in to fund the race. Max never showed her a financial report. He kept all the checks in his front pocket and pulled them out whenever someone suggested he didn’t have much support.

Meanwhile, at Mayor Starke Taylor’s headquarters on North Central Expressway, the forces were already in motion. In December, he had raised $760,000 at a $l,000-a-plate dinner to pay off old campaign debts and leave him more than $350,000 for this year’s race. In early January, Taylor’s campaign consultant, Margaret Koons, had a wine and quiche luncheon with a small group of Taylor’s most influential supporters to lay the groundwork for the re-election campaign. A couple of weeks later, a young, vivacious woman named Teddie Garrigan was brought in as campaign director. Teams of volunteers were lined up, huge phone banks were organized—and this was before anyone knew Goldblatt was going to run.

Max announced his candidacy in typical style, talking about the monorail that he wanted to put around Dallas and then giving his wife of 50 years a corsage. “I asked my wife,” Max said at the time, “whether she would ever divorce me if I ran for mayor. She said, ’Divorce, never; murder, maybe.’”

Max had accumulated a campaign chest of about $20,000. He said that was all he needed. The rest would come from free newspaper and television coverage. But three weeks into the campaign, he had barely gotten a line in the papers. Koons, Taylor’s consultant, said that her staff had seen through Max’s strategy early, and thus kept the mayor from appearing at most forums with his challenger.

The Taylor campaign staff had planned a low profile, in part to show a mayor so hard at work he didn’t have time to campaign, and, in part, to keep Max at bay. They treated Max with deference. Garrigan would even start her speeches, when Max was present, with, “I know Max has a lot to say, and I know you want to hear him, so I’ll keep my comments brief about Mayor Taylor.” Taylor also held his own “town meetings” and basically stayed away from Max, who Koons says “with his bunch of one-liners would make any incumbent look bad.”

But in March, at a Hillcrest-area North Dallas homeowners’ association meeting, Taylor and Goldblatt squared off for the first time. This was Taylor country. “They’re a different breed up here,” Max said before the meeting. “People think a mayor has to come from up here because of all the black-tie balls a mayor has to go to. Well, listen, I’ll go to a ball and be a nice guy. I won’t take off my shoes. But I will tell them they’re a bunch of silly asses to wear this stuff.”

Almost everyone expected him to swing for the chin, which was the way he had made his name. From his little Fibber McGee-like hardware store in Pleasant Grove, an area known for rednecks, fundamentalists, and liberal Democrats, Goldblatt began his political career more than 20 years ago when he started writing vicious letters to the city’s newspapers. Copies are kept in two file cabinets in Max’s sherbet orange office. Leafing through them, one doesn’t sense any overriding philosophy, only the image of a man who saw himself as a figure of hope against a tide of lunacy.

During the late ’60s, his first unsuccessful campaigns for the City Council were characterized by fury (in one election, his opponent accused the Goldblatt camp of putting nails underneath the tires of his car), but Max never gave up. His lawsuit against citywide council elections after his 1967 loss was the precursor for single-member-district elections.

In 1979, on his fourth try, he was elected to the City Council, and his comments made the newspapers regularly. He became a master of the media. City Hall followers were amazed at the way Max would sit through a briefing session, appearing almost unaware of what was going on—until it was his turn to speak. Then Max would heat up like a blast furnace, firing out his ideas with passion, even if they were the same ideas the previous speaker had voiced. He knew the minute he opened his mouth, the newspaper reporters would wait for a bombshell, and the electronic reporters would flip on their cameras. Kit Bauman, who covers City Hall and the local news media for The Dallas Downtown News, has, for a long time, contended that Max is a creation of the TV industry.

And in front of the North Dallas homeowners’ group, Max put on his act. He told them that the EDS grounds should be turned into a city park, not office buildings. He ranted about crowded highways. He strutted around the stage like an actor from an old American melodrama. His words flared across the auditorium like sheet lightning.

The place almost exploded. Women in Perry Ellis dresses and men in button-downs actually yelled, “Hooray.” They laughed at his stories. Taylor, with his winter-hard smile and often fallible stage presence, gave his normal speech—a quietly persuasive statement about the long-range planning programs he’s implemented. But the Taylor people walked away reeling with the thought that North Dallas would vote for an outsider. This was a city that could very well vote for a man who listened to the advice of no one; who said he would try to scrap the DART program, which city voters approved, in favor of his beloved monorail (although the study prompted by his 50,000-signature petition claimed the monorail was not the best solution). He was not an old-fashioned populist: He often voted for developers, and he fought constantly with minorities.

“Suddenly,” says Koons, “people were starting to say, ’Well, why not vote for him?’ I don’t know who else realized it, but down at our headquarters, we understood this election could quickly turn around on us.”

The Goldblatt campaign had picked up steam. On St. Patrick’s Day, Max dressed up in a leprechaun’s outfit, and people on Greenville Avenue cheered when he passed. He told a Republican Women’s Club meeting that City Hall’s development program for the southern part of the city was “flat-out economic rape!”

But when Max released the campaign’s “bombshell’—when he tried to tie Taylor’s land holdings to his lobbying for the proposed State Highway 190 in North Dallas—almost no one paid attention. Elkins announced that they had caught everyone “lying like Persian rugs,” but the story got unspectacular play. Taylor called it “political garbage,” and the one controversy in the campaign went out with a whimper.

By the last week of the election, things were back to normal. Max backed up traffic on Central when he stood by the road during morning rush hours with a sign that read: “Max says you could be at work now.” That afternoon, he stood on the other side with a sign: “Max says you could be at home by now.”

One of Goldblatt’s workers couldn’t find a blank check to pay for the campaign’s last mailing—3,000 brochures—so they didn’t get sent out in time. Meanwhile, the Taylor phone banks made more than 20,000 calls to remind their supporters to vote.

The possibility that Max could win had settled on Elkins like a sledgehammer. “My God,” she said. “What if we win? We haven’t thought of that. The man won’t have the slightest idea what to do next.”

Early on election night, the totals showed Max ahead by 500 votes. Max’s lookalike son, Joe, told the band to play a horrible version of Hello, Dolly entitled Hello, Maxy.

And then there was Max. He looked as though he had seen the Second Coming. He wandered around as if in a dream. He poured bourbon into a glass from a flask and snapped once at Elkins when she mentioned there was a misalignment of the ballot in the voting machine. He told her to be more positive, then Max walked outside to get some air. In his silence, he seemed to take on an extra meaning, like a freeze-frame picture.

“You know,” he once said early in the campaign, “if I don’t win this thing, I’m gone. It will be like a death, in a way. Where does someone like me go when he has to step off the platform? He goes home, and no one will remember what he says. This is it, the last big effort. I know they all laugh—everyone forgets that I hear the laughter—but I don’t want to feel I left without getting all of them to think, even if it’s just for a minute.”

Now, as the totals mounted for Taylor—a small margin, but enough to put him over—Max strolled back into the headquarters. He grabbed a woman and danced. The cameras gathered. He yelled, he hollered. He drank another bourbon.

And when Taylor was declared the winner, Max got on live television and roared about voter fraud and demanded a recount. He was livid. Joe Goldblatt had tears in his eyes.

Max did tie up the election—for less than a week. Taylor was declared the winner again in the recount, but not without Max calling other City Council members “bird-brains” and announcing that the election judges were “full of baloney.” For days, Terry Elkins, when asked about the misalignment in ballots, would begin to weep. “They’ve stolen the election from us,” she said. “They’ve stolen it away.” It was no act.

Long after the election, in the clutter of his hardware store, Goldblatt slowly rubbed a hand across his face and talked about getting out of politics, maybe even selling the store. “Letting go and trying to adjust” was the way he put it.

“I just never thought I’d be bitter like this,” he said. “Disappointed, yes, but never bitter. But they all got together and eliminated me. In a couple of years, they won’t give a damn what I said.”

The afternoon sun played across his face. It was getting warm now in the city, the heat clinging to the earth. Max looked toward the door, thinking. Soon, at dusk, the fireflies would come out. People always have a tendency to follow a firefly—guided by its erratically blinking light, trying to understand where it is going and why it blinks. Little lights have such an attraction.


Skip Hollandsworth

Skip Hollandsworth

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